The Secret Lives of Deep-Cover Russian Spies

Who are "the Illegals"?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

First they captured our intel, now they capture our imaginations. The 11 Russian spies who lived under deep cover in the U.S. for years may not have actually secured any classified information, but their bizarre stories and Cold War-style mystique have won them eager profiles in nearly every media outlet. What is it like to be one of the so-called "Illegals"?

  • They Lived as 'Suburbia Personified' The New York Times' Manny Fernandez and Fernanda Santos write, "They raised children, went to work in the city each day, talked the small talk with neighbors about yard work and overpriced contractors. In short, they could have been any family in any suburb in America. ... Miles away in Yonkers, there lived another ordinary couple, Vicky Peláez and her husband, Juan Jose Lázaro Sr. They doted on their two pet schnauzers and their teenage son, Juan Jose Lázaro Jr., a classical pianist. The elder Mr. Lázaro had been known among his students at Baruch College for his outspoken left-leaning politics, and his comments in class offended some but earned respect from others, just as Ms. Peláez's columns for El Diario La Prensa, one of the country's most popular Spanish-language newspapers, had earned her a following of both fans and critics."
  • Ordered by Moscow to Have Sex, Children The New York Daily News' James Meek reports, "The most bizarrely inhuman allegation ... was that they lived as married couples, even though most weren't, in fact, ever married. And had spy sex. And had spy children together, even though they were only pretending to be married couples in order create a 'deep cover,' or 'legend,' by blending into American suburban society. And it was all on orders of Mother Russia's spy service, the SVR, whose headquarters is known as 'Moscow Center.'"
  • In Russia, Adulated Like Movie Stars The New York Times' Ellen Barry writes, "In the lore of Soviet spycraft, few figures command as much respect as the 'illegals,' steel-jawed agents with the intelligence of a chess grandmaster and the fortitude of a cosmonaut. ... They were rewarded with the kind of adulation Americans reserve for movie stars." They received "grueling training, psychological screening for a life of isolation and stress. The ideal candidate was single; while some agents enjoyed the comfort of deploying as a couple, any offspring they produced were immediately sent back to the Soviet Union."
  • Surprisingly Heavy on Social Networking The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder asks, "Are you one of alleged Russian sleeper spy Anna Chapman's 181 Facebook friends? Do you subscribe to her Twitter feed? She's @nycrentalsnews. What about one of her 150 connections on LinkedIn? Were you one of the five people who recommended her on LinkedIn?" He explains, "Chapman's key tasking was to 'search and develop ties in policy making circles in the U.S.' and then send intelligence reports back to Moscow Center. In today's world, connections are made online."
  • The 'Femme Fatale' Spy The New York Post's Bruce Golding gets a little carried away. "A ring of 11 Russian moles right out of a Cold War spy novel was smashed yesterday -- and among those busted was a flame-haired, 007-worthy beauty who flitted from high-profile parties to top-secret meetings around Manhattan. ... Russian national Anna Chapman -- a 28-year-old divorcee with a masters in economics, an online real-estate business, a fancy Financial District apartment and a Victoria's Secret body -- had been passing information to a Russian government official every Wednesday since January, authorities charged."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.